More than 100 different types of HPV exist, most of which are harmless.
HPV infection is common and does not usually lead to the development of warts, cancers, or even symptoms. In fact, many people infected with HPV show no signs or symptoms.
Genital warts are very contagious and are spread by direct skin-to-skin contact, including sexual intercourse, oral sex, anal sex, or any other contact involving the genital area (for example, hand-to-genital contact).
About two-thirds of people who have sexual contact with a partner with genital warts will develop warts, usually within 3 months of contact. You cannot become infected with HPV from contact with a toilet seat.
Most people with the virus do not have visible warts but can still transmit the virus. Treating the warts may not decrease the chance of spreading the virus. Therefore, all people who are sexually active should be regarded as potential sources of HPV, not just those with visible warts.
A person infected with HPV may not see warts appear for weeks to a year or more after being exposed; it is not usually possible to know when or how you became infected.
The most common way of diagnosing HPV is with a Pap test. While a Pap test by itself doesn’t usually definitely diagnose an HPV infection, it can identify infected abnormal cells and precancerous changes in the cervix that may be precursors to cancer.
If there is an abnormal pap smear, the doctor often will do advanced testing on the material to determine if, and which kind, of HPV may be present.
In some cases, during a physical examination, the appearance of genital warts in any sexually exposed area will prompt some doctors to diagnose HPV without futher testing. Some physicians may confirm the diagnosis by doing a biopsy (collecting a tissue sample from the wart) and sending it to a to a lab for analysis.
There are several safe and effective treatments for genital warts. Your doctor may choose a medication, a removal method, or a combination of both.
Depending on factors such as the size and location of your genital warts, your doctor will offer one of several treatment options, including:
In some cases, the patient applies the topical medication, but several of these options (podophyllin, TCA, BCA) require application by a doctor.
Pregnant women should not use podophyllin, podofilox, or 5-fluorouracil, because these medications are absorbed by your skin and may cause damage to the fetus.
Depending on the size of the warts, some doctors may choose to remove them by one the following methods.
Although treatments can get rid of the warts, none get rid of the virus. Because the virus is still present in your body, warts often come back after treatment.
Sometimes warts disappear without treatment, but there is no way to predict whether the warts will grow or disappear. Therefore, if you suspect you have genital warts, get examined and treated, if necessary.
The best way to prevent an HPV infection is to avoid direct contact with the virus, which is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact. If you or your sexual partner has warts that can be seen in the genital area, avoid skin-to-skin and sexual contact until the warts are treated.
The Food and and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the use of HPV vaccines (Cervarix, Gardasil) for the prevention of infection from some of the most common types of HPV viruses.
The HPV vaccines do not provide protection from all types of HPV virus, so about 30 percent of cervical cancers and 10 percent of genital warts will not be prevented by the current vaccines. In addition, the HPV vaccines do not prevent other sexually transmitted diseases, nor does it treat existing cases of HPV infection or cervical cancer.
Some types of HPV can cause cervical cancer. Other types are associated with vulvar cancer, anal cancer, oral cancer, and cancer of the penis (a rare cancer).
Most HPV infections do not progress to cervical cancer. If you are a woman with abnormal cervical cells, a Pap smear will detect them. If you have abnormal cervical cells, it is particularly important for you to have regular pelvic exams and Pap smears so you can be treated early, if necessary.
Genital warts may cause a number of problems during pregnancy. Because genital warts can multiply and become brittle, your health care provider will discuss options for their removal, if necessary.
Genital warts also may be removed to ensure a safe and healthy delivery of the newborn. Sometimes they get larger during pregnancy, making it difficult to urinate if the warts are in the urinary tract. If the warts are in the vagina, they can make the vagina less elastic and cause obstruction during delivery.
Rarely, infants born to women with genital warts develop warts in their throats (respiratory papillomatosis). Although uncommon, it is a potentially life-threatening condition for the child, requiring frequent laser surgery to prevent blocking of the breathing passages.